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Generally speaking, synthetic drugs are substances created to be similar to other known drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. These manufactured drugs are sold over the counter at various convenience stores, tobacco shops, gas stations as well as on the street. Depending on their chemical make-up, these substances can be classified into the following categories: cannabinoids, "party pills", research chemicals and drug analogues. While the packaging for many synthetic drugs clearly states "products are not intended for human consumption", their graphic design and labeling imply these substances to be smoked, inhaled, etc. as routes of consumption.
Today, there are more synthetic drugs on the market and the black market than ever before. Fifty-one new synthetic cannabinoids were identified in 2012, when there were just two in 2009. Likewise, thirty-one new synthetic cathinones were identified in 2012, as opposed to only four in 2009. Additionally, seventy-six other synthetic compounds were identified in 2012, raising the total number of new synthetic substances identified in 2012 to 158. While congress has worked hard to ban many of these synthetic substances at the Federal level, Customs and Border Protection note that a large majority of these drugs originate overseas.
Top cannabinoids being used include: K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Bombay Blue, Genie, Zohai, and Bliss. These drugs are synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists; designer drugs that effectively mimic the effects of cannabis. The psychoactive artificial cannabinoid is sprayed onto a herbal base material then sold as a "natural" high in various shops and markets. When these types of drugs first hit the market in the early 2000's, many thought they were simply a mixture of natural herbs and relatively safe. However, laboratory analysis conducted in 2008 revealed that these substances were in fact synthetic cannabinoids. Over the years, the companies that produce these drugs have continued to change and manipulate the formula they use to avoid the laws that make selling cannabis illegal.
People use cannabinoids such as Spice and K2 because of the effects they experience while high on the drug. Reports from users indicate the effects of cannabinoids (synthetic marijuana) are similar to the pleasant side effects of marijuana, only more intense. The desirable effects sought after by those who use synthetic marijuana include: elevated mood, relaxation, dissociative state, euphoria, lowered inhibitions and altered perception. However, like most drugs of abuse there is a real potential for suffering serious side effects after smoking synthetic marijuana. The side effects of using synthetic cannabinoids are much less desirable and can even be extremely dangerous at times. Side effects of consuming synthetic marijuana include:
- Chest pain
- Delayed reaction time
- Dry mouth
- Fast and irregular heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Lack of emotional attachment
- Paranoia, increased anxiety and hallucinations - typically much more severe than after smoking marijuana
- Racing thoughts
- Rapid pulse rate
- Red eyes
- Sweating and loss of control
- Tachypnoea (rapid breathing)
- Uncontrollable body movements
- Death - Current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that synthetic marijuana has been responsible for fifteen deaths during the first half of 2015. This is three times the number of deaths due to synthetic cannabinoids during the same time frame in 2014. Across the country, poison control centers have experienced a 229% increase in phone calls pertaining to the use of synthetic marijuana since January of 2015.
Another form of synthetic drugs includes "party pills". These substances are chemical compounds that mimic the effects of meth or cocaine. These man-made chemicals are related to amphetamines and often consist of cathinone, methcathinone, phthalimidopropiophenone, mephedrone, or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDVP). Most people are familiar with these chemicals as "bath salts", but they also go by a number of "brand names" such as: Bloom, Cloud Nine, Lunar Wave, White Lighting, Scarface, Arctic Blast, Cloud 10, Ivory Wave, Pure White, Vanilla Sky, White Rush, and Zoom. This synthetic drug often appears as a white or brown crystalline powder. The product is sold in small foil or plastic packages at smoke shops and online. It is often labeled as plant food, jewelry cleaner, or even phone screen cleaner. While these types of chemicals have been in existence since the 1920's, there is little known about how these drugs effect the user's brain or how the person's body metabolizes it. What is known, is that they have the potential to be highly addictive and the more the user consumes, the more their tolerance to the drug increases. These synthetic drugs are snorted, smoked or injected.
Individuals who have consumed synthetic meth or cocaine report the effect is similar to amphetamines. They experience an increase in activity, feelings of euphoria and for some hallucinatory effects. When the individual consumes synthetic cathinones, the drug works to raise the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brain circuits, regulating reward and movement. There is also a similar surge in the transmitter norepinephrine, responsible for raising their heart rate and blood pressure. The hallucinatory effects brought on by synthetic cathinones are created by increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In a study done on the rewarding and reinforcing effects of bath salts (3, 4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)), rats showed self-administration tendencies and escalation of drug intake almost equal to methamphetamine.
There are many negative side-effects connected with synthetic drugs like bath salts. The short and long term side effects of bath salts and other synthetic stimulants include:
- Breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue
- Chest pain
- Cold fingers
- Decreased need for sleep
- Heart attack
- Heart palpitations
- Increased risk of suicide
- Increased tolerance for pain
- Kidney failure
- Lack of appetite
- Liver failure
- Long term mental illness
- Panic attacks
- Violent behavior
Overdose symptoms on this type of substance range from involuntary muscle movement, dilated pupils, high blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat. During 2014, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 582 cases of human exposures to bath salts reported to poison centers.
The final categories of synthetic drugs include research chemicals and drug analogues. These drug analogues are substances that are manufactured to be chemically similar to other drugs. They are substances that are made from another drug, and often belong to a several groups of drugs like cathinones, phenethylamines and tryptamines. A recent example is mephedrone, commonly called meow meow. Many of these substances can create effects in the user at very low doses. Due to this, dealers often cut these substances with fillers to ensure their drug produces a similar effect to the illicit drug they are attempting to replicate.
Many of these synthetic drugs are highly addictive and users have a hard time discontinuing use when they realize they have a problem. There are several ways to overcome addiction to these substances ranging from less intensive approaches such as attending support groups, to more intensive like enrolling in a treatment program. A simple internet search can produce a number of local or nearby Narcotic Anonymous support groups. These groups are often a good starting place for individuals who are struggling with ending synthetic drug addiction on their own. Through the help and support of other like minded individuals, the addicted person is able to develop new ways of handling life and avoid substance use. Persons who have a severe addiction to synthetic drugs will require more intensive treatment. These individuals will need the help of an inpatient or residential program to help them withdraw and address the underlying issues that drove them substance abuse initially. Through intensive rehab treatment, the addicted person will be able to make a real and lasting recovery from their synthetic drug addiction.